A week ago I was in Fresno for the celebration of life for my cousin Ken, who died at age 92. He was one of eight cousins who, since we were little kids, got together for family events big and small and often just because we liked being together. Now five of us are left, and my world is sorely diminished.
Cousin Ken served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, became an elementary school principal, was the father of five children, and lived in Fresno all his life. He played the piano and organ in his Methodist church, headed up the church’s food pantry and taught Sunday School. What could be more conventional than that?
But Cousin Ken also chased clouds. That’s right. If he saw a thundercloud building up on the mountains east of Fresno, he would drop everything, get in his car, race to the hills and try to get under that cloud. He would follow a cloud for many miles so he could be rained on. That was the goal. Once he chased a cloud all the way to Oklahoma.
On the way home from cloud chasing, Ken would take whatever side road he came across, follow it to where it took him and spend the night wherever that was, sometimes out in the open, sometimes in the falling down building of a ghost town. More than once he met up with armed and cranky old codgers who didn’t want him there. He saved himself from these dangers with his pleasant demeanor, his ready smile and a genuine friendliness toward everyone he met, hostile or otherwise. He seemed to want to be out there on the edge, out where new experiences and deeper realizations might come to him.
Ken’s spiritual side was also both conventional and edgy. The church across the street from where he grew up was a life-long loyalty. He looked to Jesus as his guide. But he went further with it than anyone I’ve known. He told me that, on her deathbed, his mother had a vision of needy children, and Ken felt she was telling him to do what he could for them.
So, as the years came on, Cousin Ken did more and more for those having a hard time in life, especially homeless women and their children. He took them into his home, gave them most of his money, even mortgaged his house so he could buy cars for them. He became famous among the needy of Fresno, and many of us feel he was hugely taken advantage of. Nothing we said turned him from his determination to sacrifice for the disturbed and destitute. “Isn’t this what Jesus tells us to do?” he would say.
Cousin Ken was probably enabling some destructive behaviors, and maybe participating in some himself, but he also dealt benevolently with people our social agencies and church ministries don’t reach. In doing so, he pointed up terrible lacks in our common life. If we had sufficient facilities for the mentally ill, for instance, a big portion of what we call the homeless problem would be no more, and those like the ones Ken tried to help would receive the expert care and treatment they need.
Ken was no saint, as one of the cousins said about him after he died, but, she also said, he spent a lot of his time and resources doing what sainted ones have done. That was Ken.
At the end, he was grateful for his interesting life and for all the varied people he met along the way. And right there in Fresno, as the Neptune Society men were carrying his body from the house to the waiting van, it rained on him. The cloud chased after Cousin Ken that day, and the entire family took it for a special blessing.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.